Former publisher Steve Lowery recognized for First Amendment efforts

By Forrest Berkshire

The Kentucky Standard

Steve Lowery, a former journalist who spent more than a decade covering Nelson and Marion counties, was honored posthumously this week for his contributions to journalism.

Lowery was awarded the James Madison Award, which recognizes individuals for service to the First Amendment, Tuesday night by the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky.

“A brilliant, tenacious newsman with all the best instincts to enforce the public’s right to know, uncover wrongdoing and report it fearlessly,” was how one longtime colleague, Max Heath, described Lowery.

Lowery was recognized for his work with the Kentucky Press Association, where he was instrumental in several initiatives that have benefited the public. Lowery was one of the youngest KPA presidents to ever serve in that role.

Among his contributions recognized were:

• his role in rewriting and updating Kentucky’s open meetings and open records laws in 1990 and 1991, which were expanded to include electronic records. Kentucky’s sunshine laws are among the strongest in the nation.

• his role in establishing a statewide journalism internship program, the first of its kind in the country.

• his conceptualization of the KPA Legal Defense Fund, created in 1996, which assists newspapers in legal fights to obtain open records.

Lowery’s idea for the Defense Fund stemmed from an open records battle he waged with the Nelson County Ambulance Service in the 1990s when he was general manager and publisher of The Kentucky Standard.

David Thompson, KPA executive director, said in a letter supporting Lowery’s nomination that Lowery was eventually successful in gaining access to the records, but at considerable cost in legal fees. Thompson said the Standard had the financial backing of its parent company, Landmark Community Newspapers, which was willing to devote the resources. Lowery learned from experience it was a daunting task to go up against a government agency with “almost unlimited financial resources (taxpayer dollars).”

“He expressed concern that independently owned newspapers, and in the future company owned newspapers, would give up the fight for the public’s right to know because of the cost involved,” Thompson wrote.

Currently in its 19th year of operation, the fund has reimbursed Kentucky newspapers more than $600,000 in legal fees.

“As the newspaper industry in Kentucky faces new challenges in press freedom and ethics that technology has introduced, those who knew him wish Steve Lowery could be around to help us sort through it all,” John Nelson, executive editor for Advocate Communications, which owns the Danville Advocate Messenger, wrote in his letter nominating Lowery for the award. “We know he would be up to the task. Regrettably, we lost too soon a great mind and a champion of our cause.”

Journalism brought Lowery, a native of Michigan, to Central Kentucky in the late 1970s. He spent three years as a reporter at the Central Kentucky News Journal in Campbellsville before going to The Lebanon Enterprise in 1979, where he served as editor. His daughter, Stevie Lowery, now serves as general manager and publisher of the Enterprise.

Lowery was named general manager of the Standard in July 1987 and served in that role until January 1998.

During his tenure, the Standard expanded many of its operations, including launching PLG-TV on Bardstown Cable, which still serves as the primary source for local television news for Nelson County.

He was recalled by those who worked with him, and even competed against him, as a journalist committed to informing the public.

“Steve passionately believed that the public’s business should be conducted in public,” said Tim Ballard, former editor of the Standard. “In his heart, one of the most important roles a community newspaper must fill was that of holding accountable the officials entrusted with making decisions for the citizens and with using taxpayers’ money wisely.”

Lowery’s departure from the Standard also marked his exit from journalism. He died in 2007 in Colorado at the age of 54.

“Steve wrote plainspoken editorials that showed conviction and supported the good with the same vigor that he criticized the bad,” Al Cross, former political reporter for The Courier-Journal, said at a 2007 memorial service in Lebanon when paraphrasing one of Lowery’s former colleagues. “The newspaper business needs more people like Steve Lowery at his best.”